St. Joseph is a favorite patron of mine, and I always look forward to honoring his feast day each March 19. It is then that I like to recall when I felt a deep sense of St. Joseph’s presence. It was a few years ago at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, a beautiful basilica in tribute to the head of the Holy Family. My holy moment happened at the end of the Votive Chapel, which glows with the light of 10,000 candles.
This beloved chapel is located near the crypt church and the tomb of Brother André Bessette, who entered the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1870 and is the founder of the oratory. Similar to the recently beatified Capuchin priest Solanus Casey, he had a modest and simple spirit, and his one ambition in life was to serve God in the most humble of tasks. But he went on to fundraise for the building of this great church — all for the glory of God.
The Votive Chapel was designed in Art-Deco style in the late 1940s, and it holds objects like canes and crutches that have been left behind by grateful pilgrims in thanksgiving for graces and healings granted through St. Joseph’s intercession.
The chapel’s lights led me to an unassuming hallway, where there stands a small statue of St. Joseph encased in glass. I knelt down to pray and felt such peace. I felt like Jesus’ earthly father was praying right beside me. In contrast to the Votive Chapel, where thousands of candles produce an intense warm glow, one solitary wick floats on the surface of a basin containing vegetable oil in front of this statue of St. Joseph, which was special to St. André.
Brother André would take a bit of oil from the lamp before this statue and then offer the oil to those who were sick, encouraging them to rub it onto their bodies and to ask for St. Joseph’s intercession for their healing. The oil is not intended to serve as a form of treatment, but as a reminder of faith. The candle before this statue burns both day and night. The oil is put into bottles and given to pilgrims as they entrust their petitions to the fatherly intercession of St. Joseph.
A devotee of St. Joseph for nearly four decades, André joyfully embraced his role as a porter at the College of Notre-Dame in Montreal, and he approached his everyday, menial tasks with the same positive demeanor. These little “missions” proved his faithfulness and perseverance and would prelude the great mission that the Lord had in store for him: to begin fundraising for a majestic church that would become the world’s largest shrine dedicated to St. Joseph.
Brother André may have only stood 5 feet tall, but the monument that he prayed and worked for stands at the highest point in Montreal. It is taller than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The basilica’s exterior reflects Italian Renaissance architecture, but the interior has a contemporary design. In 1900, Brother André was granted permission to begin fundraising for the shrine. The first original chapel officially opened in October 1904 and stood just 25 feet high, 12 feet wide and 16 feet long.
The basilica church itself opened in 1924, on the 50th jubilee of Brother André’s final vows. The cornerstone of the basilica was blessed before a crowd of around 35,000 people. The work on the foundation began in 1926, but construction was paused from 1931 to 1937 due to the stock market crash of 1929. Brother André died before construction resumed. Completing it was a feat requiring the perseverant spirit of thousands of workers. It was inaugurated as a minor basilica March 19, 1955, the feast of St. Joseph.
I am grateful I stumbled upon the statue of my friend St. Joseph upon my visit to St. André’s church. Now, a few years after my pilgrimage, and just over seven years after Brother André’s canonization, I have a canister of this oil in my home; it was a wedding gift from two Holy Cross seminarians.
This oil is a reminder to totally surrender my heart to God, like St. André and Joseph did, and to seek God “in total simplicity.”
Because of his holy hiddenness, Joseph is the friend we can go to when we are in pursuit of greater trust, humility and love. And St. André walks in his holy footsteps.
Susanna Bolle Parent writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
A previous main photo that accompanied this story
showed Notre Dame des Victoires in France,
not St. Joseph's Oratory. The Register regrets the error.
The current main photo shows the exterior of the oratory.
St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal
3800 Queen Mary Road
Montreal (Quebec) Canada, H3V 1H6
Toll Free: (877) 672-8647
Visitor and Pilgrim Services’ email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Crypt Church and Votive Chapel: Daily from 6am-9pm
Information Desk: Daily from 7am to 8:30pm
Exhibit on Brother André: Daily from 7am to 8:30pm
Original Chapel: Daily from 7:30am to 8:30pm